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This blog was updated on a daily basis for about two years, with those daily entries ceasing on December 31, 2013. The blog is still active, however, and we hope that people stopping in, who find something lacking, will add to the daily entries.

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Saturday, October 26, 2019

Wyoming's Frontier Outlaws

Outlaw Canyon in Johnson County, so named due to its use by the Hole In The Wall Gang.

When I posted my recent item here on the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid I looked for my entry here on Butch and Sundance.

There wasn't one.

It surprised me as I had a mental recollection of having written one.  But I haven't.

Frontier outlaws are a topic that has fascinated the public from nearly day one.  Indeed, the frontier outlaw tales fit into a genera of similar tales that go back, and celebrate, outlaws all the way back to Medieval England.  I don't know if other cultures have the same genera of romanticized criminal as folk hero, but England did and its very much carried on to the United States. When it first appeared here, I can't say, but it was certainly on the scene as the U.S. entered the post Civil War frontier period and it carried on at least as late as the 1930s when contemporary criminals, some of whom were truly horrible people, caught the fascination and even the admiration of some.  And its certainly the case that folk tales in the form of movies continue to oddly glamorize criminals if not crime itself.

At any rate, frontier Wyoming certainly had its share of criminals, including famous ones, and Wyoming remained "frontier" a lot longer than many other parts of the West. We've been remiss in not addressing this, at least a bit.


That omission is likely due to the fact that the author doesn't find stories about crime or criminals interesting.  Indeed, the opposite is true.  I don't follow stories about criminal trials and the like in the press, as so many people do, and I never read novels about crimes.  With the exception of Western movies, I don't want movies about crimes very often either, although there are certain exceptions (Anatomy of a Murder is one of my favorite films).  So in this sense I'm ill equipped to write on the topic.  There are undoubtedly a lot of people who know a lot more about this topic than I do and I'm likely to miss somebody that they think is really important.  With that caveat, we dig in.

Wyoming was settled later than a lot of other areas of the Frontier West, something it shares with Montana to its immediate north.  The state remained largely unsettled, except along the Union Pacific Railroad, until after the U.S. Army's campaign of 1876 made it somewhat safe to penetrate the northern part of the state.  Even at that, it wasn't really until the 1880s when ranchers started to move up into the more northern portions of Wyoming and a plethora of difficult conditions operated against anyone moving into the area.  It took fairly dedicated ranching efforts to really make a go of it, with there being certain really exceptional early efforts that proved to be very much the exception to the rule.

Transportation lagged enormously in all of Wyoming until the turn of the prior century which played into this.  It also all operated to make much of Wyoming truly wild and lawless in the original sense of the word; i.e., without law.  In those early days the application of the law was often done by laymen with no color of right other than a roughly inherited sense of what the law was.  People speak, of course, of "English Common Law" and Wyoming is a common law jurisdiction.  In those very early days, however, the law was in fact very much like the early common law and conditions in some ways hearkened back to Saxon England.  Law was administered roughly and by the people in a lot of circumstances and everyone basically agreed that this was acceptable.  That formed a sense of "taking the law into your own hands" that proved to be very long lasting and difficult to overcome, and to some extent, it never has been.


If those conditions created a necessity for laymen to often administer the law, they were also ideal for criminals, and therefore its not surprising that there were some. What probably is more surprising is that there wasn't a lot more than there were.

In stating that, what we'd note here is that we intend to look at real frontier badmen.  That's a bit more difficult to do than it might seem, as in an era in which, all over the west, the law was fluid, crossing the boundary of the law was somewhat fluid as well.  For that reason, a person can find plenty of examples of somebody who was a criminal of some sort in one territory or state, but who ended up a lawman in another.  They'd crossed the line, but perhaps not so far as to not be able to come back.

Indeed, by modern standards, and even the standards of the day, some of the enforcement of the law or perceived law was pretty dicey, and that puts an author today in a difficult position.  There are lots of modern writers who would regard the ranchers who hung Ella Watson as murderers, and more particularly the principal rancher. But that's not at all how he was regarded at the time and to do so now really is plastering the veneer of modern views upon the old wall of a long past act.  Those who would sanction that would have to wonder how those ancients would regard the numerous actions now routinely regarded as legal which were illegal at the time and, moreover, illegal with wide support of their illegality.*

On a final note, we're not going to really cover, except where its intertwined with the story of badmen, violence that was illegal but of a sort of political nature, which we guess we've already made plain.  For that reason, we're not going to cover the Johnson County War or the Sheep War in any sort of detail, as those stories are really separate from those of dedicated criminals.  No matter what a person might think of the law and those stories, the actions on both sides were of a different nature than those undertaken by people who were primarily motivated by money, which almost all real crimes tend to be.

With those massive caveats, we dive in.

The Wild Bunch

The Wild Bunch as photographed in Ft. Worth, Texas. This photograph would lead to their demise.  Top from the left:  William Carver and Harvey Logan.  Bottom, Harry Longabaugh, Ben Kilpatrick and Robert Parker.

By far the most famous of Wyoming's outlaws are Harry Longabaugh and Robert LeRoy Parker, aka Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  And by extension, their gang, or their criminal circle more properly, The Wild Bunch, are Wyoming's most famous criminal gang.** 

As a gang, we should note, it's exceedingly hard to define.  It was organized, and loosely under the control of Cassidy, but people came and went.  At least one "member", Bob Meeks, participated in a single crime with the gang. Up to nineteen or more individuals wondered in and out of it, although only a handful are consistently associated with it.  It was, moreover, a regional gang, operating out of Johnson County's Hole In The Wall region, but also out of the Robber's Roost region of Utah, and operating as far south as Texas and as far north as Montana.  Indeed Utah, has just as good of claim to this story, should somebody wish to claim it, as Wyoming, and its impossible to talk about the Wild Bunch without intertwining both states.

In some ways, Cassidy (Parker) and Sundance (Longabaugh) are the exceptions to the rule in Western criminals as they come the closest to their popular image of Robin Hood like jovial characters.  They weren't that, but they depart much less than other Western gangs such as the James Gang, which were actually comprised of homicidal unhinged degenerates.

And if Parker and Longabaugh are exceptions to the rule, Parker is more so as he was actually from the region.

Wyoming Territorial Prison mugshot of Robert LeRoy Parker, aka Butch Cassidy.

Parker was born in Beaver Utah, a southern Utah town, to British parents who were converts to Mormonism, having both converted prior to their immigration to the United States with their families. Both parents came into the country as members of English Mormon families, coming over at age 12 and 14 respectively.  They married in 1865. Parker was the first of 13 children of the couple and grew up on his parents ranch in south central Utah.  This makes Parker a Western born criminal and more than that one who was born loosely in the Rocky Mountain region, something that, setting aside Texas which was settled fairly early, is unusual.  All the more unusual he was part of an observant Mormon family.

Parker was born in 1866, just a year after his parents' marriage, and was engaging in petty crime by the time he was 14.  He started to work as a cowboy at the same time, a fact that's often noted but which also means that for some reason he was not set, apparently, to take over his father's ranch even though he was the oldest son, nor was he set to homestead himself. As a cowboy he began to engage in horse theft enterprises and soon moved to Colorado.  During this period he worked as a cowhand in Wyoming, Colorado and Montana, something that would have been typical for the era.

In 1889 he turned to bank robbery hitting a bank in Telluride and fleeting to Robber's Roost in Utah.  The year after that, however, he turned towards the legitimate and bought a ranch, which proved to be unsuccessful, near Dubois.  Four years after that, however, he fell into the circle of the Bassett sisters through dealings with her rancher father.

I'm not going to blame Ann Bassett for Parker's descent into crime.  He was clearly set to head in that direction anyhow and he in fact may never have given it up.  Association with Bassett, who was just fifteen years old when she and Parker first started dating, was unfortunate however as something about the Bassett family was uniquely amoral.  It was a bad development.  Parker and Bassett became romantically involved and the Bassett sisters were unique for their era due to their easy association and participation in crime.

In 1896 he was arrested for horse theft but he may have been involved in more sinister crimes.  That sent him to the Territorial Prison in Laramie where he served 18 months out of a two year sentence before being oddly pardoned by Governor Richards.  Out of the pokey, he took up with Josie Bassett and then went back to Ann.  Out of prison he also went quickly back to crime and entered an association with a group of criminal associates and pals that included Elzy Lay, Kid Curry Logan, Ben Kilpatrick, Harry Tracy, News Caver, Laura Bullion and Flat Nose Curry.  They named themselves after another criminal gang active in Oklahoma, The Wild Bunch.  Their early specialty was bank robbery.  Soon after forming, Longabaugh was recruited to the gang.  By 1897 the gang had expanded to include Ann Basset and Maude Davis, something usually omitted from the treatments on the criminals which instead focuses on the male members.  By 1897 three of the gang were in fact female.

They operated widely including into Idaho and Utah.  In 1899 they turned to train robbery, however, which would prove to be their downfall.  They then became the target of the Pinkerton Detective Agency.  Nonetheless they expanded their train robbing activities all the way to New Mexico.  With the heat growing, however, they attempted to secure a pardon through the Governor of Utah, which failed as while waiting for the result, they infamously robbed a train near Tipton Wyoming on August 29, 1900.  In December of the same year they stupidly posed for their famous portrait in Ft. Worth, Texas, which was soon in use by the Pinkertons in aid of their efforts to arrest them.  Following this, they robbed a final train near Wagner Montana, after which the gang split up and Parker and Longabaugh fled first to New York, then to Argentina, and then to Bolivia.  The fact that they could undertake such a dramatic flight says something about the degree of their criminal enterprises and how profitable it had been.  

Their flight to Argentina was known to the Pinkertons which pursued them there after a time.  Engaged first as ranchers, they returned to bank robbery by 1905 and were in Bolivia by 1908.  They were gunned down by Bolivian authorities at a residence (not robbing a bank, as portrayed in the film) on November 6, 1908, a few days after robbing a mine courier (a scene inaccurately portrayed in the film as well).

As I've kept saying "they", and as the story of Longabaugh is so tied up with Parker's, I should pick him back up here before carrying on with Parker, which indeed a person must do to complete the story.

Harry Longabaugh was born in Pennsylvania in 1867 and came west at age 15 with a cousin.  He turned to crime by age 20 when he robbed a horse, saddle and rifle from a ranch outside of Sundance, Wyoming.  That resulted in an 18 month jail sentence in Sundance itself, which is why he adopted the Sundance Kid moniker.  After his release he worked as a cowboy in Alberta, showing the fluid nature of the border in the period.  By 1892 he returned to crime and is suspected of having participated in a train robbery.  In 1897 he participated in a bank robbery.  Shortly after that he was in the Wild Bunch.

Longabaugh was fast with a gun, but he is unknown to have killed anyone until his final gun battle in Bolivia.  Parker is unknown to have every killed anyone.  This is in part why the two remain celebrated.  They were violent men who traveled in very violent company, but they didn't actually take anyone lives themselves except, in Longabaugh's case, the very end.  Of course traveling in violent company abets violence, something that is routinely forgotten.  Just because they weren't the killers doesn't mean that people weren't killed in association with their criminal enterprises.

As already noted, Longabaugh and Parker were regional criminals, not just Wyoming ones, and in the end they fled to South America, first to Argentina, and then to Bolivia, where they resumed the life that had put them on the run.  Given as their criminal activities in the West gave them the spending power of millionaires today, you have to wonder what happened to the money, but then generally people of this character aren't really good at financial sustainability.  In the end they were both gunned down in Bolivia, which seems to be the end point for ne'er do wells from elsewhere who make their living from the gun.

Or were they?

Ever since 1908 there's been persistent rumors that both men survived.  How they evaded death in a hail of Bolivian bullets is rarely discussed with these theories, but it'd have to fall to something like mistaken identity for those who met their end in 1908.

Parker's rumored return is the most circulated story, at least in Wyoming.  At least as early as the 1930s Dr. Francis Smith, who treated Cassidy for a bullet wound and who had treated Etta Place as a patient as well, claimed to have talked to Cassidy after his claimed death and that he'd had his face surgically altered in France, something that given the state of plastic surgery at the time seems rather absurd.  Josie Bassett, one of the infamous Bassett sisters that we'll discuss below, claimed in the 1960s that Cassidy visited her in the 1920s and ultimately died in Nevada.  Residents of his hometown in Utah likewise claimed that he returned and lived in Nevada.  One of his female siblings claimed that he returned home and visited the family homestead in 1925 and then lived out his life in Washington, a story circulated by some other family members in later years, who claimed that he lived under the name Philips.  Some claim his family buried him after his death on the family ranch and have kept his burial place a secret.  The better stories all have a mid 1920s element to them.

In Wyoming there were and remain persistent rumors of his return.  He's claimed to have visited Baggs in 1925, prior to returning to Circleville Utah in 1925.  I personally heard a rumor related to me from Fremont County of his having more than once visited a female friend of his in that county.  That story came to me second hand, of course, but he person who heard it first hand had it related to him by an old resident of the county.

There are many fewer rumors regarding Harry Longabaugh, but one is that he returned and lived out his life in Utah.  A person claimed to be him in these rumors was actually exhumed recently and his DNA did not relate to Longabaugh's family's.

They're almost certainly in a busy grave in some Bolivian cemetery having met a fate they deserved.

They were, of course, the two most famous of a prolific criminal enterprise.  We should at least list the other more notable members of the same gang.

William Ellsworth (Elzy) Lay was a member from Mount Pleasant, Ohio who was taken to Colorado with his family as an infant.  He left home at age 18 and was running with Cassidy by the time he was 20.  He dated Josie Basset at the same time that Cassidy was dating Ann Bassett. . . those girls again.

Lay actually married and had a child, although his wife was not one of the Bassett's, and he refused her demands that he give up being an outlaw.  Lay was also a killer, being responsible for the deaths of several lawmen.  In 1899 he was captured, convicted of his crimes, and surprisingly sentenced to life in prison, showing that Western law was more lenient than supposed.  His wife divorced him.  In 1906 he was paroled.  He worked in Baggs for awhile, remarried and then moved to California where he lived out the rest of his life, dying in 1934 at age 65.

Kilpatrick, seated bottom right, with other Wild Bunch members.

Ben Kilpatrick was known as the "Tall Texan".  He was from Texas and participated in the gang, but not that much is really known about him.  He was captured and sentenced to prison in St. Louis Missouri in 1901 and received a fifteen year sentence for his crimes there.

He returned to crime upon his early release in 1912 and attempted a train robbery soon thereafter. During the robbery an express messenger beat his brains out, literally, with an ice mallet.  He was 38 years old at the time.

William "News" Carver was a member who acquired his nickname as he liked to read his name in the paper.  Carver was part of the infamous Wild Bunch 1900 train robbery of a train near Tipton Wyoming in which they famously ended up accidentally blowing up a rail car.  The gang split up to make their arrest by law enforcement more difficult after that.  Carver robbed a train in Montana the following year and then fled to Texas.  He was shot in a bakery in Sonora Texas the following year when they were arresting him on suspicion of a murder he didn't commit.  A companion appeared to be going for a gun.  Carver's didn't clear his holster before he was shot six time.

Carver had been in various other gangs before he took up with The Wild Bunch. He's also been married early in his life but his wife had died shortly after their marriage.  He's yet another member of this gang associated with the Bassett sisters, dating Josie Bassett, although not surprisingly his relationship with her would not prove to be permanent.

Orlando Camillia ("O.C" or "Deaf Charlie") Hanks was a barely known member.  He was arrested for his part in a bank robbery in Texas in 1894 and released in 1901.  He robbed a train in Texas the following year and was shot upon being run down while resisting arrest.

George Curry.

George "Flat Nose" Curry (Currie) is a well known member of the gang.  He was a Canadian by birth who relocated with his family to Nebraska when he was a child.  He was killed in 1900 by a Sheriff in Utah when being pursued for rustling.

Harvey Logan, aka "Kid Curry".

Harvey Logan was perhaps the most violent member of the gang and was responsible for the revenge killing of the Utah sheriff who killed George Curry.  He'd earlier committed another revenge killing upon a rancher who had killed his brother.  He may have killed up to nine men in his criminal career before killing himself in 1904 when he was run down by a posse in Colorado.

Logan was a prolific and early criminal.  He was, as noted, violent, but he was none the less popular.  Oddly, his popularity was such that it was common at one time, while he lived, for prostitutes to claim him as the father of their children, irrespective of their actual parentage.

Three women, including one associated strongly with Logan, were members of the gang at various times. The one associated with Logan was Laura Bullion.

Laura Bullion

Bullion was also a girlfriend of Kilpatrick's and perhaps fell into the gang naturally as Kilpatrick was a friend of her father's and he himself had been an outlaw.  She'd also been involved with Carver as early as age 15.  She was arrested in 1901 for her role in passing bank notes from a Montana train robbery undertaken by the gang.  She served only three years of a twenty years sentence, showing the surprising leniency of the time, and moved to Memphis in 1918, claiming to be a war widow. She worked as a domestic after her release from prison.

We should note before moving on that Matilda Maude Davis enters the story here in some fashion as she was uniquely one of a handful of women who were allowed into The Wild Bunch's criminal sanctuaries.  Photos show here to be a petite attractive woman.  Little is really known about her but she did marry Elzy Lay and was obviously aware of his profession, if we wish to call it that.  After she became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, she unsuccessfully insisted that Lay give up a life of crime and ultimately she divorced him.  She later remarried and lived in Utah.  She passed away in 1958 at age 83. Their daughter, Marvel, also lived out her life in Utah and died in Vernal at age 86 in 1983.

As a side note, this may make the extended story of Lay and his family the happiest one here, although its not happy.  None of them died at the end of a rope or gun and they all lived out natural lives.

The most famous female members of the Wild Bunch, if we don't include Etta Place as a member, and if we regard them as members, are the Bassett sisters who are strongly intertwined with it and its various members.  Associated with various gang members from their teenage years, they were the daughters of a rancher, and later ranchers in their own right.  Their father Herb, twenty years senior to his wife, was sympathetic to the gang and the family appears to be uniquely amoral.

Ann Bassett, 1904.

The Bassett family ranch straddled Utah and Wyoming and their father received stolen horses as part of his enterprise. The father himself was eclectic.  He was a civil war veteran and well known local musician who actually relocated to Utah with his wife as he was afflicted with asthma.  Locating in Brown's Hole, he seems to have taken up the fairly loose association with the law that was common there at the time. That exposed the Bassett sister to criminals and they obviously had no compunctions about taking up with them.  This was reinforced when the girls stepped into the family ranching operation on their own and came under pressure to sell their interests to larger ranches. 

The Bassett girls were well educated for the time.  Their mother sent them to high school in Craig, Colorado and then to a Catholic boarding school in Salt Lake.  Ann was asked not to return to the boarding school and was subsequently sent to a boarding school on the East Coast. Their formal educations ended when their mother, who was twenty years younger than their father, died in 1892.

The Sisters Bassett provide an interesting example of the blurring of lines between legality and illegality in Wyoming and the West at the time.  Their father was a rancher dealing in legitimate and illegitimate livestock and they stepped into the position, occupying what would normally be a male role in the family.  They became highly active in ranching in their own right, crossing the same boundaries that their father did. They were also under illegitimate pressure to sell from well monied outside interests, and in that position they resorted to protection from criminal elements and also to rustling themselves.  Their activities were sufficiently aggravating that they became the target of another infamous Wyoming criminal, Tom Horn, who was brought in to address tensions in the area, although Horn never took action against the Bassetts.  Ann Bassett came to figure so prominently that she became known as "Queen Ann Bassett".

By most accounts, the Bassetts were sent home by the Wild Bunch in 1897 so that the gang could focus on its criminal activities. By any account, the Bassetts were of a higher class than Bullion.  Following that, Ann Bassett married rancher Hyrum Bernard in 1903.  She was arrested, but acquitted, of rustling in Utah that year. The marriage did not last and the couple divorced six years later, although Bernard continued to help the girls with their ranching efforts after that.  She married again in 1928 at which time she was middle aged to another rancher. That marriage was long lasting and indeed when she died in 1956 her surviving husband was crushed by her loss.  She lived until 1956, passing away at age 77.

Harry Longabaugh and Etta Place. . . maybe.

On Ann Bassett, and enduring legend has maintained that she was the actual Etta Place, the final enigmatic girlfriend of Harry Longabaugh, and indeed there is evidence for that.  Place is surrounded in mystery and her origins are not known.  She bore a strong resemblance to the only verified period photograph of Ann Bassett and at least one effort of scientific photo analysis concluded that they are the same person.  However, details of Place's presence contradict known activities of Bassett's, including her 1903 marriage and arrest for cattle rustling.  At least from my prospective, the two look alike but not identical, with the interesting fact that the efforts of contract a common law marriage or near common law marriage by the senior members of the gang involved exceptionally attractive women.

Josie Bassett was the older of the two Bassett sisters and arguably the wilder.  While she was born first, she also lived longer.  Her associations where nearly identical, as were her activities.  She was actually married shortly after her mother's death in what would be the first of five marriages, which must have ended soon as she was shortly after that in the Wild Bunch orbit.

Like Ann, her association wit the Wild Bunch dropped off after 1897, although she'd engage in bootlegging during the Depression.  She lived an entire life as an outdoorsman and lived frugally in a cabin after loosing her ranch in her later years.  She married five times as noted.  She had three children, all by her first husband.

Well what about Etta Place?

Place is by far the best known of the Wild Bunch damsels, but she's also the one that the least is known about.  Even her real name is not known.  Nor is her ultimate fate.

Place appears out of nowhere in this story right at about 1900, at which time she was somewhere in her 20s (like Ann Bassett at the time).  She was uniformly regarded as a pretty woman, and indeed bore a remarkable resemblance to Bassett.  When she appeared, she appeared as Longabaugh's girlfriend/paramour/common law wife.  Indeed, under the common law, they would have been married, assuming no impediments to marriage, as she would hold herself out as his wife.

The Pinkerton Agency listed her origin as being in Texas but she claimed to be from the East.  Interestingly, Ann Bassett was adept at affecting a New England accent due to her stint in the East as as student.  She went with Longabaugh and Parker to Argentina, and indeed she went back and forth from Argentina to the United States apparently with Longabaugh on at least two occasions, once in 1902 and once in 1904, showing the depth of the resources they had.  She participated in a robbery in Argentina in 1905 and fled into Chile with the gang thereafter.

She was apparently much effected by the loss of their ranch in Argentina and is believed to have grown weary of leading a criminal life.  In 1905, after their fleeting to Chile, she returned to the United States, this time to San Francisco, that year.  Longabaugh came with her.   They are not known to have seen each other again, although she was believed to be in San Francisco as late as 1907.  A woman matching her description inquired after Longabaugh's, death of the U.S. Envoy to Chile about obtaining a death certificate for him, a curios thing to do in 1909 if she was not in fact his common law widow.

After that last 1909 appearance she simply disappeared.  She's subject to numerous intriguing rumors, but none of them have any kind of adequate factual support to back them up, particularly given the nature of the evidence at the time. She was a striking beauty, but that alone was not a sufficiently  unique distinguisher to lead to any real knowledge of her later whereabouts.

We should wrap up the Wild Bunch in some fashion as they really are the most unique and well known of Wyoming's criminal gangs, and perhaps they're the only one that oddly reflects Wyoming's status as "the Equality State", given female participation in it.  It was a highly effective criminal gang until it overstepped itself with the Tipton train robbery which really lead to its end.  The money it took in robberies, in the context of the time, was frankly vast, which is perhaps best demonstrated by the amount of post Tipton travelling Parker and Longabaugh did.  The members were much more violent, however, than people like to imagine, and indeed quite a few members of the gang ultimately met violent deaths.  Very few managed to disassociate themselves with crime later on. 

The female members are a real oddity and individually can't be neatly summed up.  At least Bullion appears to be a sad character who had fallen into a low state in life but who was attractive to the male members of the gang who consorted with that element.  Maude Davis is a mystery as to how she ended up in its orbit but she clearly saw the defects in their existence and pulled out for a more conventional life early on, with her ex husband ultimately being one of the few male members of the gang who also did so later.  The Bassett's are recognizable to those who spend a lot of time on ranches today as fitting the sometimes free spirited female rural personalities that aren't uncommon today, and they likely never saw themselves as aiding and abetting criminals. While not to draw excessively feminist analogies, they are unique early on for rejecting conventional female roles, but then that was true of nearly every woman allowed into the Wild Bunch except for Davis. 

Etta Place is simply a mystery, having arrived from somewhere and disappeared into somewhere as well.  Perhaps she can be summed up by her photos, in which she's pretty, but looks profoundly sad. We don't really know what caused her to take up with Longabaugh and her early origins are all speculative.  What we can say is that due to their crimes, Longabaugh and Parker were quite rich and spent freely, and that is always attractive to some.

The Hole In The Wall Gang



What?  Didn't we just cover that?

Well yes and no.  The problem here is that sometimes in referring to the Wild Bunch, people call them The Hole In The Wall Gang, not realizing that they actually weren't the same thing.

The Hole In The Wall Gang were those criminals who hung out at the Hole In The Wall, which included the Wild Bunch.  It included others who didn't run with the Wild Bunch however.  Basically, the Hole In The Wall Gang wasn't a gang at all, but a loose association of criminals who took refuge in the Hole In The Wall Country of Johnson County.  Given that the Wild Bunch was a pretty loose group in and of itself, that makes the Hole In The Wall Gang really loose.

Given as we've covered the Wild Bunch, we've covered most of the more famous members of the Hole In The Wall Gang. There were, however, others.  The unifying factor however was the Hole In The Wall itself, which featured protection from all sides and facilities within in it in the form of cabins and a corral.

Indeed, that alone is part of the story that's very hard for moderns to grasp.  Refuge to the Hole In The Wall and Outlaw Canyon started early on in Wyoming after the Powder River country opened up and it continued on all the way into the very early 20th Century.  Today the region is easily accessible to people living in Buffalo, Sheridan and Casper and lots of fisherman venture down the canyon every summer.  But at the time, before automobiles, the country was so vast that this region was essentially ceded to criminals.  It remained a criminal refuge even after statehood and the entire Johnson County War was fought around it without penetrating it or ending its status.  As a natural fortress it was impenetrable, keeping in mind that law enforcement in Wyoming was extremely thinly manned.  No Sheriff could possibly mount a sufficient expedition to even think of entering it.  It was only time and the narrowing of the world that the technology of the early 20th Century introduced that ended that.

The gangs that operated out of the Hole In The Wall formed a sort of alliance and traveled in each others company, sometimes according to a loose set of rules that had been formed in order to keep the alliance active.  In the 1880s and 1890s they were highly active.  The Tipton raid however operated to put the focus on the Wild Bunch and caused it to disperse.  That event in and of itself changed the nature of the toleration for crime in the state.  The 1909 Spring Creek Raid would show that the support for it had evaporated.

The use of the hideout declined steadily after the Tipton Raid and was basically over by 1910.

Tom Horn

The next individual we'll mention here has already been mentioned, and some wouldn't consider him an outlaw at all.  Once again, this demonstrates the blurred lines that existed between the law and the outlaw at the time.

Tom Horn was just about the same age as Longabaugh and Parker, having been born in 1860.  He'd been born in Missouri and was already working as a scout and packer for the U.S. Army by 1876, the same year that the Battle of the Little Big Horn was fought.   He served in the Southwest under the legendary scout Al Sieber and was himself a Chief of Scouts by 1885.  He served with distinction in the wars against the Apaches. During this period he became acclimated to violence and had already killed in a man in what amounted to a type of duel, that being with a Mexican Army lieutenant over a prostitute.

After the Apache wars he became a rancher briefly but was cleaned out by thieves, an event that left a lasting impact on him.  He wondered into being a stock detective by title, but in reality was an assassin for large livestock interests, a position that tended to have the cover of law.  He reentered the Army during the Spanish American War but upon coming back out went to work as a killer for the the large livestock interests during the Wyoming stock wars period.

Horn was distinctly different than figures like Parker and Longabaugh as he did operate, albeit barely, under the cover of law. That ran out for him with the murder of Willie Nickell, which is still disputed as to who did it. No matter who did the killing, it was likely a mistake as Nickell was a teenage boy and likely not the intended target of the killing.  Horn was none the less convicted of the murder and executed for it.  In some ways, given Horn's undoubted role in many other extra judicial killings, it hardly even matters if he was guilty of the Nickell murder or not.

Horn was active in Wyoming in the 1890s and early 1900s, and had various employers, some of whom are only suspected.  He is rumored to have been at significant Johnson County War events although his presence can't really be established.  He was a Pinkerton agent for a time, although they ultimately asked him to resign.  His execution fell in 1903 meaning that he died an earlier death than some of his outright criminal adversaries.

His 1903 execution also demonstrated that the era of lawlessness was really ending.  We've already noted that above, but prior to his killing Nickell there'd been no effort to arrest Horn even though he was complicit in a lot of killings for hire.  Much of that was because powerful parties sanctioned the killings and thought them justified, even if fully illegal.  Nickell's killing was shocking, but prior murders had also been shocking.  The arrest of Horn for the Albany County murder showed what the Spring Creek arrests would demonstrate in Big Horn County shortly thereafter.  Toleration for criminal violence for any cause had ended.

The Red Sash Gang

This entry will be a brief one as nobody is certain if a Red Sash Gang really existed or what it consisted of.

Rumors and stories of a violent Red Sash Gang circulated following the Johnson County War and are somewhat tied up in its aftermath. 

Stories of a group of violent rustlers who stole cattle, threatened people, and committed murder, while wearing red sashes, a popular cowboy affectation at the time, circulated in the early 1890s.  The murder of Marshal George Wellman in May, 1892, while he was out in prairie to investigate the events of the prior month's raid into Johnson County, was attributed to them.

The existence of the gang was widely held to be true at the time, but the lack of any real definition to them, other than some sinister activities at the time, has caused people to wonder if they really existed.  If they did, it was only briefly.  And the sashes may have meant nothing at all.  At this particularity period in time it was very common for cowboys for some reason, including those on the Northern Plains.  Frontier artist Charlie Russell, for example, routinely wore one.

William L. Carlisle




Bill Carlisle started his criminal career, brief though it was, the decade following the end of Longabaugh, Parker and Horn's, making him arguably the last of Wyoming's frontier criminals. 

Carlisle robbed a series of trains in 1916 after reaching a state of absolute destitution.  Twenty six years old at the time, he'd lived a hard life prior to those events, but was none the less noted to be a polite robber who eschewed taking money from women and children.

Sentenced to a long prison sentence, he escaped from prison in 1919 and took up train robbery one more time.  However, his attempt failed as the train he targeted was full of servicemen he could not bring himself to rob, and instead it merely ended up in his flight.  He was shot when a posse caught up with him near Glendo and returned to prison.  In prison for the second time he underwent a profound religious conversion and converted to Catholicism and became a model prisoner.  He was released from prison in 1936.  He lived for many years in Laramie before returning to his native Pennsylvania in his old age.

Carlisle is a unique criminal in that he seems to have been poorly constituted for it from the very first.  His early life as a near orphan had seemingly left him without a really strong moral compass, but it wasn't completely absent.  He proved to be more willing to die committing a crime than he was willing to kill committing one. He couldn't bring himself to rob anyone except men, and he exempted servicemen.  Even in his arrest and trial photos he's smiling and his captors appeared to have no concern that he'd flee once caught.  Once he found some guidance, he permanently corrected his direction.

Earl Durand

If Carlisle is not the last of Wyoming's frontier era outlaws, assuming that even he is, than Earl Durand has to be.  Or at least he wanted to be. 

Durand was born three years prior to Carlisle's first train robberies and was active as an odd criminal in a brief 1930s episode.

From a Mormon family in Park County, Durand lived an outdoor life seemingly calculated to ignore the law, including poaching.  He had a strangely willful streak in which he refused to comport his lifestyle to the realities of the modern world, seemingly believing that he personally could live more as if it was 1839, rather than 1939.  Arrested in 1939 for poaching, as he refused to buy a license, he escaped from jail and killed several law enforcement officers in his flight.  This lead in turn to a man hunt which became absurdly overblown.

Escaping first to the hills, he came down into Powell and died from a self inflicted gunshot wound during a failed attempted bank robbery.  Durand, in fairness, likely fits into the violent 1930s more than the frontier era, however.  I  note it here as he seems to have wished to act as if he lived in a much earlier frontier era at a time at which it wasn't completely impossible to imagine doing so.

What about Frank and Jesse James?

I'm going to call bull on this one.

Frank and Jesse James are so famous that it seems there's no region of the West in which it isn't claimed that they were there.  The oddity of that is that they were Southern criminals, not Western ones, and there's simply no evidence of it.

Jesse James, the leader of the James Gang, was a generation older than the youngest of the criminals we've been writing about here.  So was his brother Frank. Both men had been acclimated to a blistering level of violence by the Civil War and they fit into a unique category of American criminal that came out of that war and whose era lasted into the 1930s.  They were regional criminals and as their raid into Northfield Minnesota demonstrated, they were inept out of it.

They're so famous, and they were active in the immediate post Civil War period we associate with the West, that people adopt them into any scenario.  I've heard it claimed that they took refuge in The Hole In The Wall at one point, that they had a cabin in the Big Horns, and that a high point I know of in the foothills of the Big Horns was used as a lookout spot by Jesse to evade pursuers.

It's all myth.

The James Gang was broken by the 1876 Northfield Minnesota Raid and it never really returned to any sort of significant activity after that, although they did attempt to.  Frank James sundered to authorities in 1882 with a promise that he would not be extradited to Minnesota.  Jesse James met with a bullet to the back of a head fired by a cousin that same year.

Most of Wyoming's criminals of the era weren't even active at the time that Jesse died and Frank surrendered.  The Big Horn Basin where they took refuge had barely been opened up at the time and use of the Hole In The Wall was just about to start.  The James weren't frontiersmen and they were cowboys. They were Missouri smallholding farmers who were introduced to horrific violence during the Civil War and kept it up, where they lived, and where there was sympathy for them, after it.

So What Can We Say?

Well, perhaps we have already said it. But what is clear is that, in looking at it, Wyoming never really had any criminals who were really Wyomingites per se in the frontier era.  The territory and state were too new for it.  The vastness of the country attracted some by the 1880s to a life of crime, but it also wan't really until then that the state had anything to steal.  With a widely dispersed population, the West was ideal for criminals hiding from the law, but at the same time that same condition meant that dedicated criminals had to act over a vast swath of territory.  Most criminals operating out of Wyoming also hit targets in other Western states.  The Wild Bunch ranged north to Montana and south to Texas, and operated out of Utah as much as Wyoming.

Those criminals are romantic only in the romanticized portrayals of the. Even the Wild Bunch, with its attractive young men and women, included members who were outright killers.  All of the more notorious criminals risked death at the hands of lawmen who were not shy about using firearms and who were free to do so almost without question, and many met their end that way. At the same time, societal tolerance for criminals was remarkably high during the 1880s and 1890s and only started to end in the 1900s.  Those caught in the 19th Century were actually quite unlikely to meet with the severest of penalties upon being tried and often severed very light sentences even for really horrific crimes.  Again, starting in the 20th Century this began to change and those caught risked severe sentences after that.

Much of the wilder era of crime in Wyoming overlapped with the stress of the cattle conflicts and the cattle/sheep conflict which seemingly operated to support it being ongoing.  The Johnson County War amazingly managed to take place in and around the Hole In The Wall without impacting its status at all.  Men and women loosely associated with the small livestock side of the conflict had interaction with some criminals that tainted that side of the conflict in reputation but which also created a seeming high degree of tolerance for those living outside of the law.

By 1900 almost all of the underlying conditions that gave rise to the era of criminal ranging were coming to an end.  The railroads had penetrated everywhere in the state by that time.  The cattle war ended and the small rancher was established.  The sheep war was ongoing but winding down.  Frontier towns had yielded to being small towns and residents didn't want their banks and trains robbed.  The first automobiles came in during that decade in numbers allowing people to cover distances in hours that had once taken days, and which rendered a place like the Hole In The Wall to a fishing hole, rather than a thieve's fortress.

Or perhaps we should say returning it, thankfully, to that former status.

_________________________________________________________________________________

*The comparisons that tend to be made in this area tend to run only one way, but in reality there are plenty of things that are illegal now which those in the 19th Century would regard as flat out bizarre in legal terms while there are a lot of  social topics in which the law was much different than now and our ancestors would find  the evolution of the law to be disappointing in its results at best.

**The latter name, The Wild Bunch, has become confusing over time due to Sam Peckinpah's use of that title for his fictional 1969 movie about 1910s Western outlaws, a movie that set new standards in cinematic violence.  Peckinpah's film is not set in Wyoming and it is not about the Hole In The Wall Gang. The title, however, may in fact be intended to recall them, as Peckinpah's movie intentionally sought to smash the image of the Robin Hood Western criminal, which the Hole In The Wall Gang symbolizes, with the violent reality of frontier crime.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Blog Mirror: Wyoming Then and Now. Old Main, 1940/2019

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Lex Anteinternet: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, released.

Lex Anteinternet: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, released.:

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, released.

The iconic Western movie, of course.

It's a movie that I haven't reviewed yet (I guess this will have to suffice for the review), in spite of an effort here to catch movies of interest that are "period pieces", if you will, which all non fantasy movies set in the past are.

The 1969 movie is one of the best loved and best remembered western movies.  It took a much different tone in regard to Western criminals than the other major Western of the same year, The Wild Bunch.  I frankly prefer The Wild Bunch, which as I earlier noted is a guilty pleasure of mine, but I love this film as well.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a romanticized and fictionalized version of the story of the two Wyoming centered Western criminals who ranged over the entire state and into the neighboring ones.  In the film, which is set in the very early 1900s before they fled to Boliva, and which follows them into Bolivia, the two, portrayed by film giants Paul Newman (Butch) and Robert Redford (Cassidy), come across as lovable rogues, and barely rogues at that.  The film had a major impact at the box office and came in an era in which the frequently predicted "end of the Western movies" had already come.

The Hole In The Wall Gang, lead by (Robert LeRoy Parker) Butch Cassidy, far right, and Harry Lonabaugh (the Sundance Kid). This photograph was a stupid move and lead to their downfall.

So how accurate is it?

Well, pretty mixed.

Even the Pinkerton Detective Agency allows that they are the two romanticized Western criminals, and there are quite a few romanticized Western criminals, are closest to their public image. They were intelligent men and got away with their depredations in part as there were locals who liked them well enough not to cooperate with authorities, although that was also true of much less likable Western criminals.  And the vast majority of characters in the film represent real figures who filled the roles that they are portrayed as having in the film.  So in that sense, its surprisingly accurate.

Where it really fails, of course, is in glossing over the fact that they were in fact violent criminals.  And as outlaws their history is both violent and odd for the era.  The Wild Bunch, the criminal gang with which they are most associated, was extremely loosely created, and people came and went, rather than there being just one single group of outlaws.  The Wild Bunch itself generally took refuge, when it needed to, in Johnson County's Hole in the Wall region (their cabin exists to this day) and perhaps because of this or because of several of them being associated with the Bassett sisters, the daughters of a local small rancher, their activities oddly crossed back and forth between pure criminality and association with the small rancher side of the conflict that lead to the Johnson County War.  This latter fact, once again, may have contributed to their image as lovable criminals, even though they themselves were not in the category of individuals like Nate Champion who were actual small cattlemen who were branded as criminals by larger cattle interest. The gang was, rather, made up of actual criminals.

So the depiction of them simply attacking the evil (in the film) Union Pacific is off the mark. They were thieves.  Just less despicable thieves than most.

They did go to Bolivia and their lives did end there, according to the best evidence.  The film accurately portrays their demise coming in the South American country even if it grossly exaggerates that end, persistent rumors of at least Butch's survival aside.

Material detail wise the film is so so.  This late 1960s movie came at a time at which a high degree in material details, a bar set by Lonesome Dove, hadn't yet arrived, so the appearance of things reflects the movie styles of the late 1960s more than the actual appearance of things in the early 1900s.  Arms, however, are correct as in this movie making era the tendency to try to stand out by showing unique items in use hadn't arrived.

All things being considered, it is a great Western and well worth seeing.  It belied the belief that the era of Westerns was over, and in some ways it recalls earlier sweet treatment of Western criminals who were supposed to be just wild boys at heart.  Nobody gets killed in the film until Butch and Sundance do at the bitter end, which contributes to that.  In reality, The Wild Bunch is likely a more realistic portray of Western criminals, but this is a great film.

Laramie: 1940 and 2019.


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